Do’s and Don’ts For a First Chapter

I’ve acted as a CP and editor for several manuscripts, and I’m always quick to pick up on what works, and what doesn’t, in the first chapter. I realize there are already a number of articles and posts out there on this very topic, but it never hurts to have another one.

 

Don’t:

  • Start with weather / character waking up / mundane activities:
    • Many agents ask to see your opening pages along with your query, and with all the submissions they receive, you want to make sure yours stand out. If you waste those opening paragraphs with the description of the weather, listing what your character does after waking up – you won’t be able to hook them. It’s boring and unoriginal.
  • Have the character look in the mirror and describe her features.
  •  Start with an action scene:
    • I understand why writers might want to start with an action scene, because they think it’s exciting and more likely to grab the reader’s interest. The problem is the reader isn’t invested in the story at this point, and therefore might not care as much about the outcome of the scene. For example, if the chapter opens with the MC being kidnapped, it’ll be difficult for the reader to care about the MC’s fate when they haven’t even had the chance to care about the MC. If it opens with a battle scene, it’ll be difficult to care about the outcome if we don’t know what each side is fighting for.
  • Go overboard with description:
    • You’ve got a short opportunity to get an agent’s interest, don’t waste it with an overly long description of the scenery.
  • Info dump:
    • There’s no need for backstory on each character, or an overload of information on any subject, really. Allow the reader to learn as the story progresses.

 

Do:

  • Limit the number of characters in this chapter:
    • Too many characters can get confusing, and it’s more important to learn about the main character at this point.
  • Establish a connection between the reader and the main character
    • I think it’s the most important aspect of the first chapter. The reader needs to care about your protagonist, or else they won’t care about their story. How do you do this? Make the protagonist relatable.
  • Present an exciting incident/conflict.
    • I mentioned in the previous section not to open with an action scene. That being said, that doesn’t mean you should open with backstory and info dumps – in fact, you shouldn’t – but there needs to be something that happens. Some exciting incident that moves the plot forward, present some kind of choice or conflict to the main character that’ll grab the readers’ interest.

 

Ask yourself what happens if you cut the first chapter, or first few chapters? Does chapter two, or three, or even four,  offer you a better beginning? If so, your story might be starting in the wrong place.

For a more detailed post on writing a strong first chapter, you can check my most recent one here.

 

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